She inspired my first ever fantasy.
As I stared across the racks of wine bottles at the girl with the blonde hair cropped just at her shoulders and thick pink glasses, something stirred deep in the pit of my stomach, then travelled lower. The book obscuring half her face was bound in bright colors with a man and woman embracing on the cover. Being in here every day this week has taught me that tomorrow she would come in with a different one.
Her name tag read Emma. Emma hadn’t taken notice of me studying her, which is exactly how it was supposed to be. I was no one from nowhere.
Looking at her made me ache in places I hadn’t known existed before. Like wiggling a loose tooth, I kept coming in here to feel it again. Loneliness. It had taken days for me to recognize the emotion she evoked in me. I hadn’t allowed myself the self-indulgent feeling since I was ten-years-old, enduring the trials. Imagining us together both eased and worsened the loneliness, but I couldn’t help myself.
The print on the blanket underneath us is covered in small blue flowers. Her eyes fasten onto mine and she can’t help but lean forward, toward me, reaching for me.
The refrigerator fans were so loud, I could barely hear the country music playing in the background. The fans also kicked up the smell of wet concrete into the air, which oddly enough, I’ve developed a fondness for.
I reached for the wine bottle in front of me, all the while watching her liquid brown eyes race across the pages. When I walked in today, she pulled her head out of her book to smile, attempt eye contact, and welcome me into Smoky Badger Liquors. I had pulled the hood of my heavy brown coat up over my head so she couldn’t have seen anything but a nod as I entered. My Masters always gave me high marks in camouflage. I’m exceptionally good at disappearing into shadow, so I can watch. So I can hunt.
My Masters trained me harder than the rest because of my bright blue eyes and dark curly hair. They explained the rare features were disadvantageous and molded me with disciplinary force until I was able to master silent movements and veil my presence until I became a ghost in any environment. I seldom removed my hood. In North America, it was easier to blend in, but I still garnered many looks if I left the hood down, especially from women. They would hold eye contact for too long, give me mysterious smiles. It was my understanding women are the keener observers of the sexes. I couldn’t help but feel they had spotted something which made me stand out, and I couldn’t have that. The hood stayed up.
I take her back to the half-built skyscraper where I spend my nights. The night air sweeps through the large rectangular cuts where floor-to-ceiling windows would eventually be installed, though no worker has appeared since I arrived in town. The white stars twinkle down at us, granting us with their divine knowing. Having Emma here with me is the utmost felicity. Her lips spread into a smile when she sees what I’ve brought out.
Normally, the numerous pockets on my dark khaki pants would be full of daggers, but I had to leave them behind to get through the metal detector. The first time I entered, Emma apologized for it, saying too many ‘yay-hoos’ had come in with their guns on their way out to or back from hunting trips. I didn’t comment because I was hunting too. Although physical weapons would not be of useful aid to me this time.
I tracked it to this area a week ago. It had been clinging to the shadows, waiting for the perfect moment to feed again. That wasn’t going to happen though. Not while I was around.
I pull out a bottle of wine, as well as a loaf of bread and a small block of cheese. In my fantasy, we sit on the blanket and eat to our heart’s content. She tells me about the books she reads, though I’m sure their content is too sophisticated for my understanding. In my fantasy, I don’t eat alone.
There is a word for what I keep imagining. I’d once seen a picture of two people eating on a blanket together on a massive sign by the road when I was hunting in Ohio. They smiled and waved, their other arms locked behind each other’s backs in half an embrace. I still couldn’t remember the word. I eat alone and don’t talk to humans because I am not worthy. Not yet anyway. But what is that word?
“Did you need help finding anything?” Emma tipped the book away from her face to ask me the question.
I realized then that I’d been holding the same bottle of wine for almost ten minutes.
Then it happened. Emma looked at me. Truly looked at me, so that no matter how expert I am at staying hidden, I was completely and utterly seen. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. My heart tripped over itself in earnest as if waving its arms and crying out, ‘Yes, I see you too. I am so pleased you see me.’
I hadn’t yet responded and my expression intensified toward her. The only other customer in the store glanced over from the bourbon display and raised an eyebrow in my direction. The man’s dirty blonde hair framed a round face covered in scraggly facial hair not quite long enough to be a beard. His eyes were skeptical, looking at me like he knew my every thought about the woman behind the counter. He wore his camouflage trench coat unzipped, showing off a black “Metallica” tee shirt. The coat still managed to nearly swallow up his six-foot frame. I resisted the urge to squirm under the gaze of a lanky young man with bad posture.
“Um.” I paused before walking toward Emma. “Yes, actually I’m not sure what I should purchase next.” I shouldn’t have engaged. It wasn’t tactical. There was no reason to do so, but I couldn’t help myself with those brown eyes boring into me.
Emma tucked a bookmark in between the pages and set it aside. As I walked over with the bottle in my hands, she straightened the over-sized shirt hanging open over a white tank top. Everything about her screamed small-town, except her eyes. Her eyes spoke of wisdom and worldliness beyond this little Colorado mountain town. I would wager her knowing eyes were the result from all those books she reads.
“What do you think of this one?” I asked, awkwardly holding out the bottle to her, almost dropping it. It’s an act. I don’t drop things. But it was important I come off like a yuppie. I still wasn’t entirely sure what a yuppie was, but it’s what a man spat at me in an alley way a month ago when I grabbed him and slammed him to the ground. I claimed I’d slipped, which was a better explanation than why I really threw him to the ground, and how it would have resulted in him losing his head if I hadn’t. As much as I disliked having to appear ridiculous and uncoordinated, I know how necessary it is to not appear as what I am.
Taking the bottle from me, Emma’s fingers touched mine with the barest brush. Heat shot up my arm then down my back sending a shiver rolling down it with unfamiliar pleasure. Again, the fantasy assailed me in vivid color, and I desired it more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life. Someone to see me.
But it was forbidden. I was not to be seen, certainly not to know affection. I was to follow the missions wherever they took me.
Emma didn’t notice my mind wander or my deliberate swallow. She examined the label, biting the inside of her cheek as she thought. “This is a Malbec, so if you want something bolder and spicier, this is your gal,” she said with a smile, handing it back.
I wished she was my gal, my thoughts mimicked her term. I took back the bottle, “Oh, okay.”
Her dark brows wrinkled in confusion. They were thick and dark, a striking contrast against her honey wheat hair and chestnut brown eyes. It added to the intelligence of her face. “You sure do have interesting taste in wine.”
Uh oh. I put on an easy smile, “How do you mean?”
She gestured to the bottle in my hand, then tugged at the bottom of her plaid shirt. “I mean, you never drink the same kind twice. Most people come in and pick the same bottle or at least stick to the same types of wine. You’ve gotten everything from a cabernet to a dry white, all the way to rosés and moscatos.”
Could she guess the small army of wine bottles I’d bought remained unopened, gathered at a corner of the uninhabited building I had made base camp? The fact that I’d never even had a sip of alcohol in my life was probably poking through and making me seem out of place. I’d assumed people would pick out as many different kinds of wine to collect the variety. My Masters would be disappointed in me.
I shrugged and maintained the easy smile, though my back muscles tensed.
One of the refrigerators kicked up a high whine along with a clunky rattle, making the machine sound sick. Emma looked over at it with her brow furrowed. I sniffed the air for burning rubber but detected nothing electrical. Emma stared at it a few long seconds before turning her attention back to me.
“Still figuring out what you like?” Emma asked.
I nodded in agreement, grateful to let her lead the conversation.
She smiled back, clearly pleased to have figured me out. “Well, there’s not a lot of good stuff here. Small-town people tend to keep it sweet or in a box. Let me show you the best of the crop here and maybe that will help you decide.” Emma came around from behind the counter. The prospect of knowing one of her ‘favorites’ kicked up the speed of my heart again in hungry anticipation for something that gave me a little piece of her.
The refrigerator next to the first complaining machine loudly rattled and shook now, like it might expire any second. The other man in the store eyed the fridge from an aisle away, edging away from it.
Emma took a few steps toward the refrigerators. “That’s weird. At least it’s cold out, so if the fridges die, I can nestle the bottles in the snow out back.” Casting a shy glance over her shoulder at me, she bit the inside of her cheek in a way that made me feel all at once restless. “I guess I shouldn’t advertise where I plan to stash the unsupervised booze.” Emma laughed lightly, but I wasn’t paying attention to her anymore.
A third refrigerator matched the clatter and screech of the first two. One of my hands fell to Emma’s arm, stopping her from moving any closer. I almost didn’t notice how good it felt to touch her warm, impossibly soft skin. Almost. My gaze darted around the store. “You need to go,” I instructed in a low voice.
There wasn’t time to try and fabricate a lie to get her to vacate the premises. Then I smelled it. Akin to rotten meat and bad eggs. A marker, telling me that evil was near.
The other customer pulled the collar of his t-shirt over his nose. “Gross, what is that smell?”
Emma covered her own nose. “Ugh, I don’t know but it can’t be good.” Then she noticed me searching the empty space above all the wine racks and asked, “What? Do you think the power is going to blow?” She looked around the store along with me.
“Yes,” I said, allowing her to come to her own conclusions again while trying to lead her away from the refrigerators. I couldn’t anticipate where it was going to attack from, so I kept Emma close to my side.
Emma broke from my grip and jogged to her register. “Let me grab my phone so I can call the fire department from outside.”
“No.” I cried out, but I was too late. She raced in the opposite direction of the front doors.
“Travis, you need to get out of here, too,” she yelled to the other customer, grabbing her phone from under the counter. All the refrigerators lining the walls screeched and howled like tortured animals.
Before Travis could get far, a scream wailed through the store, piercing through the racket of the refrigerators. The high pitch made the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stick up like needles. My skin broke out in a cold sweat. This wasn’t like the icy single-digit temperature outside, the cold blanketing the store now had an unnatural underlying heat to it that I’d become all too familiar with. While Emma and Travis threw their hands up to protect their ears, Emma’s phone clattered to the ground. I whirled around. The screech had come from the front doors.
A mass of energy materialized five feet above the ground. It resembled a dense gray fog, swirling and curling around itself until a shape like the top half of a skull emerged from its center. The eyes were two sucking holes of darkness. A dark mouth yawned out of the fog with another scream. The form swelled with what I could sense as anticipation and raw, desperate hunger.
A soul eater. It appeared between me and the way out. Soul eaters don’t appear in human form like benign ghosts. They are twisted and demonic—their only purpose, to consume and destroy souls.
A sharp gasp from Emma behind me told me she saw it just fine too. I prayed to the gods that she wouldn’t panic and do anything to hurt herself. Curses streamed out from Travis somewhere behind me.
This was what I’d been waiting for. Throwing back the hood of my jacket, I stepped up to face off with the soul eater. I’d prefer there were no witnesses, but there was no time to protect them from knowledge of the dark. It was more imperative I protect their souls. Squaring my hips, I pressed my fingers together to make a triangle for the Holy Trinity. Taking in a deep breath, I began to chant, “Luminatos treahgo eearhovotas.” It was in a tongue strange to Emma and Travis, no doubt. The language was as old as time itself. I poured every bit of belief I possessed into my words to banish the soul eater back to the Stygian, the dark world. It was by a powerful force of sheer will that would banish this spirit away.
The soul eater advanced though I knew it wasn’t coming for me. It wanted Emma. It coveted her soul. It would suck her up like sweet honey. Or that Travis guy, although I bet he wouldn’t be as delicious.
“Laseto, reinetic, ioenai.”
It let loose another high-pitched scream as light gathered between my hands with a comforting warmth. Fear for Emma made my throat squeeze tight. I refused to let anything happen to her, but gods I wished she had gotten out of here. I needed the whole of my focus on the soul eater.
The light from my hands spread, pure rays stretching toward the evil spirit. Sweat broke on my brow as I felt the pushback of its’ dark power. I was almost there; my power had almost reached its peak. It was like a wave cresting, preparing to break in a heady rush to extinguish the dark being.
Before my power could reach its zenith, the resistance of dark energy from the soul eater dissipated. I was awash in surprise, and my own unused forced back-splashed without a counterforce to focus it, in a sprinkle around me like sweet raindrops. It had never taken so little effort to banish a dark entity. Relaxing my hands and stance, I realized I hadn’t.
The dark incorporeal form was still present, but it was changing, undergoing some kind of metamorphoses. The swirling mist solidified and from it stepped out a very real, very solid foot.
I stared, incredulous. It wasn’t possible. Soul eaters couldn’t become solid, yet soon it had two legs and half a torso. Formed from mottled gray flesh, the limbs were abnormally long and stretched out. Tendons protruded out from its body in harsh contrast.
Emma cried out from behind me. “What is that?”
I didn’t have words as I watched it solidify up over two large arms then up over a head. The monster was now eight-feet tall. Where a face should have been, it was dark and fuzzy, like my eyes couldn’t focus. Putrid sulphur and heat pressed down on the store with unrelenting force. Chills wriggled down my spine like a waterfall of squirming maggots. Sweat poured down my face. I blinked. What I was witnessing was wholly impossible. To prove me wrong, the Soul Eater grabbed a rack of wine and hurled it at me.
I dove out of the way just in time, only to hear the rack of bottles smash and shatter against a display against the wall in a tremendous explosion of glass. Shards sliced the flesh across the top of my hands where they covered my head. Something bit deeply into my calf, just above my boot where my pant leg had ridden up, but I didn’t cry out. Lifting my head and turning slightly, I saw a jagged piece of curved glass four inches long sticking out of my leg. On my feet again, I reached down and yanked the piece out. Warm blood trickled down into my boot. Back to my feet, I searched for Emma.
“Emma?” So consumed with fear for her, I didn’t notice the soul eater upon me until the cold of its shadow fell over me. I whipped around, my head snapping back so I could look up into its hazy face. The dark sucking holes for eyes and a mouth appeared as it had when it was incorporeal.
“Chevalier,” the creature hissed through a mouth never used before.
“Soul eater,” I nodded back. I wanted it to believe I was still unafraid, but a soul eater becoming solid went against everything I’d ever been told. It had been a long time since fear had touched my heart.
Reaching into my heavy coat, I pulled out an opalescent moonstone the size of my palm and brandished it out toward the soul eater – the only useful tool I could smuggle through the metal detector. Most people knew it as a symbol of peace and harmony, but I knew it to be an amplifier to my power. I yelled out to the soul eater, “Hominay, regeta, questano.”
It threw back its massive head and let out a raspy chortle. Despite the light emanating from the moonstone reaching out toward the soul eater, the beast swept its massive arm, smacking me across the room, my body slammed into another rack of wine bottles. Bottles shattered under my weight. Corks popped with enthusiasm, followed by a hissing spray of liquid.
The breath had been knocked out of me, but my armor-lined clothing protected me from any broken glass. Wine dripped down the back of my head as I sat, gathering my wits.
From my new angle I could see Emma flattened against the floor behind a rack. Her eyes trained on me with a mixture of fear and wonder. Travis was crouched over her. He began to pull her up and toward the back exit, but they were too slow. The soul eater advanced on them. I tried to yell for them to look out, but the words came out as a wheeze after my hard impact. The soul eater hovered over them now. Travis’s body trembled, warring with its own fight or flight instinct. Glasses askew, Emma blinked up at the cloud as if she weren’t quite sure she could believe her eyes and was trying to wake herself up from a dream.
“Propheros,” the soul eater hissed at Travis. Holy gods of creation. The soul eater just named the Propheros, which could only mean one thing: the time of darkness was almost upon us.
It felt like I’d swallowed the moonstone and it had dropped down to the pit of my stomach with a sickening thud. It couldn’t be. The Propheros? Here?
Launching myself from the broken racks, I pulled out my moonstone again.
“Illiamos,” I shouted, throwing it up toward the creature. The spirit made flesh turned to see the moonstone just as it exploded into pure white light. It wailed as its form exploded with the light of my will, amplified by the moonstone. I shut my eyes against the blast, throwing up an arm to brace against the rush of energy.
When I opened my eyes, I saw it had returned to its incorporeal form. Again, I struggled to comprehend what was happening. If my Masters were here, they could instruct me what to do.
I already felt the dark mist straining to regain its solid form, and without another moonstone I was out of options. Racing to Travis and Emma, I yanked them by their arms to their feet, then ushered them out the back door.
“What in the hell was that?” Travis’s voice broke. He kept pace with me but tugged his arm from my grip once we were outside in the frosty glare of midafternoon light.
The pine trees surrounding the liquor store glistened with a layer of frost, their needles tinkling against each other in glassy laughter. The wine coating the back of my head instantly froze, but I ignored the unpleasant sensation. I continued pulling Emma forward as she stumbled. Her panting emitted white puffs in the cold.
“Seconded.” Emma lips trembled. “What in the hell was that?”
Her face was now almost as white and clear as the eggs I used to pick out from under the chickens we kept at the Temple. Fear radiated off her. Mindfully, I pushed away her fearful energies away from me. Never before had I been in danger of allowing such pollution to enter my will, but standing in front of Emma, my defenses were weakened. How could she have such an effect on me?
“It’s a soul eater,” I said. “Come on, we must get you both to safety.”
“A soul eater?” Travis screeched. His sweat-soaked hair lay plastered against the sickly pallor of his face. “What the fuck is a soul eater?”
Emma found her footing and kept pace enough that I could release my grip on her. “Pretty much says it in the name, doesn’t it, Travis?”
I tried to cover the smile that sprang to my lips as I directed them to the edge of the forest. That’s my girl.
I corrected myself, no, not my girl.
Travis stopped short of the forest’s edge and shook his head while pushing his hair back. “Oh no no no, there’s no way, man. I’m not going in there with you.”
Emma covered her torso with her arms, now shivering in the bitter cold of ten-degrees. Under her plaid-shirt, Emma’s white tank top was darkened with sweat stains and bordering on transparent, her hair stringy and wet at her brow and neck. She was probably terrified, yet I still found her to be some beautiful, unearthly creature.
“Travis,” she said. “Follow the guy who just saved our asses from the big scary dark mist monster, otherwise you’ll end up like every hysterical twenty-something dude in a horror movie.”
Travis’s posture remained rigid, unmoving.
“You are more than invited to stay and chat with the beast,” I offered, though I had no intention of leaving him to the soul eater. Especially not after learning Travis was the Propheros.
Travis paused then said, “I have my truck here. I can just drive away. Way smarter than on foot. Plus my phone is in there, and I can call for help.”
“My phone is smashed to bits inside,” Emma said quietly, now biting her lip.
I shook my head. “I have a place we can go. It is safe and close by. If you leave my side, it will discover and destroy you.”
His back stiffened. “What happens if it gets me?”
Emma stamped her feet in the inch of snow to keep warm, then turned her head in the direction I was originally leading them. “He called it the soul eater, Travis, what do you think? It dines on pizza and donuts?”
“Why aren’t you freaking out?” he screamed at Emma.
She dropped her arms to her sides and screamed back. “Because you’re doing it enough for both of us. Plus, apparently I have survival skills you freakin’ lack.”
Travis recoiled as if she hit him, stunned into silence.
Prepared to knock the belligerent man over the head and throw him over my shoulder if need be, I counted to five while he looked back and forth between the forest and his car, mulling over his nonexistent options.
With tight lips, Travis finally nodded when I got to four and followed after Emma. Quickly catching up to Emma, who seemed to instinctually know where I was leading them, I took of my coat and threw it over her shaking shoulders. I was left in a long sleeve shirt that was also armored but not to the same extent as the coat. I already felt better with Emma engulfed in some amount of protection and warmth.
She looked up as if she was about to protest, but then seemed to think better of it and mumbled a begrudging, “Thank you.” She wouldn’t look me in the eye, and her avoidance gave me a funny twinge in my stomach, reminding me of what it felt like to eat worms.
I’d had to eat them to survive when I was ten-years-old, undergoing the Trials. Even hours after I’d digested the slimy critters, I swore I could still feel them protesting, wriggling around in my belly.
People typically didn’t make eye contact if they were afraid of you and the way Emma’s gaze only darted to my chest, arms, and stomach – anywhere but my face – meant she must be terrified of me, but she kept in step.
“Glad you two are getting cozy,” Travis groused behind us.
Remembering the soul eater had pronounced Travis the Propheros, I dropped back to pace him in case anything should materialize and try to snatch him.
“We are almost there,” I assured him, and directed Emma which way to lead us until we reached the small, abandoned church. The crumbling structure probably only accommodated forty parishioners back when it was an active house of worship.
“This looks like it’s chock-full of building code violations,” Travis said, digging his heels in against going inside.
“Building code violations?” I asked.
Emma gave me a strange look. “Like the building is unsafe and could come down on us if we go inside.”
I nodded, understanding. “The structure is sound.”
“Who are you?” Travis sputtered, still not willing to enter.
I looked around, wondering how far behind the soul eater was. “Someone who is trying to save you. Now get inside.”
He snorted. “It wouldn’t even work if we did. I’m Jewish. No Christian church is going to save me.”
“We don’t have time to argue. We must get inside.” I could have explained that any place of worship would ward against the dark, but I had a feeling Travis was looking for any reason to dismiss my help.
Already, I missed being the normal nobody who popped into Smoky Badger for a bottle of wine every afternoon as I scoped out the grounds, waiting for the soul eater. I liked being that guy. Now I was back to protector and it was difficult when people didn’t want to be protected, which was surprisingly often.
Travis crossed his arms. “No dude, this is ridiculous. I’m going back to my car. I’m not staying in a place where I’ll be buried in rubble. You can count me out.”
A whisper through the trees spoke to me of flesh being torn from bone. It was a warning, and I knew I was left with no other choice but to use force.
Before I could do anything, Emma stepped up and slugged Travis in the face knocking him out cold to the ground. An impressive feat considering she was five inches shorter than him. She immediately bent over and pulled at his legs to drag him inside the church. She paused to look up at me. “Are you going help or just watch me do all the work?”
An invisible hand squeezed my heart with rapid succession, but I ignored it, scooped Travis up, and took him inside. Emma closed the door behind us.
No sooner was it shut and bolted when a heavy bang bang bang rattled the door in its frame.